Saturday, October 25, 2014

Playing Photo Doctor

You may or may not have noticed by now that I'm a bit of a writer. I always have been, since I was able to hold a pencil and form letters on paper. I wanted to be a journalist and/or a novelist way back in childhood, and even when theology and music got mixed up in my ambitions, writing was always for me an important part of those pursuits. And now, after eight years working at a magazine where I emphatically was not wanted for my writing ability, I am finally taking home a paycheck for work that primarily consists of writing stuff.

OK, so it's not Pulitzer Prize stuff. Nobody outside a 30-mile radius of Stover, Missouri, is going to care about it. But it's a step.

I would like to say it's ironic that the more I have to write for a living, the less I end up writing for my blog, but it's really not ironic. For the moment it's just a matter of time management. I don't expect the dry spell of the last few months to continue. The blog will, I think, continue to fulfill a need that even the writing I do for a living does not meet.

Meanwhile, my newspaper job has me trying to do something at a professional level that I have only previously done now and then as a rank amateur. I speak of photography. And though my previous magazine job required me to learn a lot about Photoshop, I've never had to use it the way I do now. Which is to say, making the photos I shoot for publication look like they don't suck.

During my first week or so on this job, my publisher walked me through some steps to do with nearly all photos that will go into the newspaper. Later I compared notes with a couple of co-workers and my immediate predecessor as editor of this paper. Still I struggled. Still my pictures came out looking like crap. This past week I took some entirely different pointers from another editor who has been working for my publisher for a long time, with more consistently satisfactory results. I'm going to be trying his approach, as far as I can imitate it.

Here, as an aid to my own memory, is a brief run-down on the steps I have been trying to use, and the ones my colleague taught me this past week.

The "Kill the Magenta" Approach
Here's the procedure I established based on my initial instructions from the publisher and tips from my immediate co-workers.

First, drag a copy of all the day's photos from the camera's memory card into a folder where you can store them for your records. Preview the new photos, choose the ones you want to doctor up for publication, and copy those onto the desktop. After opening them in Photoshop, choose "File/Save As" and re-name them with a brief descriptor followed by the identifying number at the end of the original file name. This way you can keep the edited photo together with the original shot.

One of the first steps after creating this new JPG file is to change the color-space (under "Image/Mode") from RGB to CMYK, because the camera shoots in RGB but the color pages in the newspaper are printed in CMYK. (For you newbies, these jumbles of letters represent different processes of mixing colors. In electronic photography, the image data is layered in three or four color channels: either Red-Green-Blue or Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-blacK.)

I would often try "Image/Adjustments/Auto Levels" before changing the mode to CMYK, just to see if it made any difference. If not, or if the image became darker or some other weird change came over it, I would undo it. If Auto Levels corrected any obvious problems, such as being too dark or having too much red or yellow, I would bless RGB for its service and then fire it and replace it with CMYK. Somehow I never found Auto Levels helpful after making the mode change.

Another thing you will do quite early in the process is crop the photo to eliminate extraneous details and allow the main subject(s) to fill more of the frame. It is advisable to crop off the sides but to leave the top and bottom of the picture as is, so there is room to pull the edges of the photo in or out depending on the space the layout editor needs to fill.

Then you can re-size the photo ("Image/Image Size") so that it snaps right into the layout without needing to be resized. The resolution needs to be 200 psi (pixels per square inch). The only other important value is the width, which depends on how many columns wide you intend the photo to be. In our newspaper, most photos are either two columns (3.558") or three columns wide (5.388"). Other possible widths in our six-column broadsheet format are 1.729" for one column, 7.217" for four columns, 9.046" for five columns (generally used once per issue, in the front page's lead photo), and 10.875" for six columns, which is purely theoretical so far in my experience. Once you set the width, the other image dimensions will adjust themselves in proportion.

This is a good point at which to pause and save the file. Then you can create the web version of the photo, to be posted online later. To do this, go back to Image Size and make it 7 inches for a portrait photo, 6 inches for a landscape, and 72 psi either way. Then do a "File/Save for Web," making sure to park the new file on the desktop and adding "web" at the beginning of the filename.

The funny thing about this save-for-web gimmick is that it creates a new file, but the file that remains open in Photoshop is still the one you were working on previously. So the next step is to undo what you just did to the image size before proceeding further.

Then come the adjustments. My original brief was to go into "Image/Adjustments/Levels," set the color channel on Magenta, and drag both the right (white) and the middle (gray) slider to the left to reduce the levels of magenta in the image. The purpose of this was not only to lighten the picture, which would otherwise tend to look too dark in print, but also to correct for a tendency of magenta ink to bleed into newsprint faster than the other colors.

Later, as I messed around and found things that seemed for a while to work better for me, I would use "Image/Adjustments/Color Balance" instead. Then I would pull the Cyan-Red slider most of the way towards Cyan, the Magenta-Green slider part of the way towards Green, and the Yellow-Blue slider part of the way towards Blue. I had to be careful, though, because it was very easy to end up with a picture that looked way too bluey-green, or people who looked like the undead.

After doing this, I would then go into Levels, select the black color channel, and pull the left (black) slider to the right as far as where the black channel started showing up on the graph. This would darken the picture a little, but more importantly it sharpened it and punched up the contrast. Another slider in the same dialog box, controlling the grayscale balance between black and white, could be adjusted to push the black end of the scale a little grayward, to correct some of the darkening tendency of the previous step.

Then I would increase the brightness and contrast a bit ("Image/Adjustments/Brightness-Contrast"), and if the picture needed still more lightening, I would play with the hue, saturation, and lightness (also under "Image/Adjustments").

Now and then, however, I had to deal with a picture where all my ingenuity could not lighten the image enough without either leaving it washed out and bled dry, or doing something weird to the color. Sometimes I had to go through the sequence several times, trying to find a balance that would work without torturing the picture beyond recognition.

One breakthrough came when my predecessor gave me a tip for lightening really dark images: go into Color Balance, select the "highlights" radio button, and drag the sliders in the opposite direction to what you did with the "midtones." (I never found any use in adjusting the color balance with "shadows" selected.) My forerunner said, and experience bore him out, that setting the Cyan-Red slider to 50 and the other two to somewhere around -10 would do wonders to brighten up a shot languishing in shadow.

After this, Photoshop's role in the process was pretty much over. Then we just had to drop the photo into InDesign, set a bounding box around it, put a cutline under it, put a horizontal stroke under that, put a slug line at the top of the page, print it, and send it through editing, proofing, and layout. The InDesign document would be saved, packaged in its own folder with subfolders for fonts and links, and placed in the appropriate folder depending on whether it was "In Proofing" or ready to be published. The web version of the photo, after being posted to the newspaper's website and social media with the cutline, would be added to the "links" folder along with the original photo and the doctored version, in case they would be needed during layout. Once proofread, the file would be corrected in InDesign and parked on the server for the layout editor to use, and the printed copy would be trimmed, waxed, and stuck to the layout board until the time came to assemble the dummy pages, based on which the pages would be laid out in InDesign.

Doing all this helped for a while. But still, all in all, my photos sucked.

Don't mistake me. I didn't expect Photoshop to do it all. I also experimented with different settings on my camera, guided by the voice(s) of experience. Sometimes the problem may have been in the performance of my old, decrepit camera. But apart from fiddling with the ISO settings, the focal length, the white scale settings, and whatnot, what could I do?

I could go to the office of the biggest paper published by my publisher and pick the brain of its city editor. He redirected me somewhat. Here is the procedure I'm going to work with now:

The "Save the RGB" Approach
My colleague said, for starters, I can forget about switching the color space to CMYK. To be sure, the color portions of the paper are printed in CMYK; but the postscript machine that every page goes through converts them automatically. So changing the mode to CMYK is a waste of time, especially given that it makes the file sizes larger, and that makes some procedures take longer. Plus, many quick fixes don't work as well in CMYK as in RGB, as I had already found with Auto Levels; and besides, most of the paper ends up printing in grayscale anyway, so the color data will be discarded.

I'll call this Step 0, because it's really not so much a step as a decision not to take a step I've been taking all along, one that I think has really slowed me down.

Step 1 is to crop the picture, but don't resize it yet.

Step 2 is to try Auto Contrast and then Auto Levels, using the History palette to step backwards if any of my adjustments have weird results.

Step 3, which I insert here on my own judgment because I think it serves my work flow best, is to save the file with its new filename and then resize and save the web version. Then step backward to before you resized the image and proceed.

Step 4 is to use "Image/Adjustments/Curves," pulling from the center of the diagonal line and tugging the curve towards the upper right corner so that the image lightens up enough but not too much. You can often tell whether you've gone far enough, not far enough, or too far by converting the color-space to grayscale and stepping backward again.

If one area of the photo needs to be lightened or darkened more than the rest, my colleague suggests doing this before Step 4, for example, using the burn tool to darken a sign that will look too washed out once the faces next to it are lightened just enough. He suggested setting the dodge tool (to lighten shadowy regions) at an exposure of no more than 4 or 5 percent, and the burn tool (to darken washed out regions) at a somewhat higher exposure. You can also select a region using the polygonal or magnetic lasso tools and run curves inside that region (either to lighten or darken it) before doing the same to the whole photo.

Step 5, if necessary, is to enter "Image/Adjustments/Hue-Saturation" and select just the red channel, or the yellow channel if necessary, and both de-saturate and lighten just that color channel, just enough to take out excessive reds and yellows. My colleague emphasized that this procedure simply reduces or lightens the level of that particular color without skewing the image towards another color, as "Color Balance" does.

Step 6, and it's important to do it in this order, is to size the picture. My colleague gives the good advice of making the picture at least a column wider than you plan on using, in case it is decided at layout time to make the photo bigger than you planned; this way the resolution of the larger photo will stay above 200. I, however, like being able to snap photos right into my template without having to worry about resizing them; so I will probably only go with this advice when I judge the layout could go either way. Or I could simply plan to use the bigger size in the layout, since it's easier to shrink a too-large photo down at the layout stage.

Step 7, which my informant says must happen after Step 6, is to do an Unsharp Mask filter ("Filter/Sharpen") with the values 110% (amount), 1.0 (pixels), and 0 (radius). If no other filter has been applied since you last started your computer, you can use the keyboard shortcut for filters to apply this. If, however, you're working with a scanned photo, you should apply a Despeckle filter first ("Filter/Noise"). Surprisingly, my instructor tells me the sharpening filter works best with a photo that is already in good focus; pretty much every photo that is really worth using. The result is that minor details pop out with surprising crispness. He does not recommend using it to correct an out of focus image because that can just make a bad photo look worse.

I hope this helps, because a picture is worth a thousand words. So if a lot of my photos continue to suck, then even if I'm a good writer, I'll have to do a lot of work to catch up.

Music You Can See

Some of the greatest pieces of music are not just beautiful to hear, but beautiful to see as well. I'm not talking about operas or ballets, in which the music is combined with stage business, scenery, costumes, and the human form. I mean pieces of pure music that conjure images in the mind's eye.

One of the first composers I encountered who impressed me in this way was Jean Sibelius, the Finnish symphonist, whose tone poem The Swan of Tuonela was part of the first album of classical music I ever listened to. I heard the heck out of it, repeatedly transferring it from vinyl to tape as I compiled collections of my favorites during a particularly lonely stretch of my childhood. Based on a myth about a swan gliding upon the river of death, the piece uses shimmering string textures to paint sound pictures of the shining surface of the water and a long English horn solo to depict the swan. Look it up on YouTube and try it if you don't believe me. This piece almost does not need the suggestion planted by the title to show you a great, graceful aquatic bird singing on the surface of a deep, dark, flowing body of water.

Another piece featuring a bird is Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Another one-movement piece for solo instrument and orchestra, this one spotlights the violin. But before the violinist comes in soaring and singing, the orchestra lays down a soft, gently dissonant chord that just stays put for a long time in the background. It doesn't do anything. It doesn't go anywhere. It just establishes a sense of space, as when an artist begins a landscape picture by sketching in a horizon line. That chord, while it lasts, is the sky in which the lark does its skylarking.

This picture brings my mind back to Sibelius, and his final tone-poem Tapiola. Evoking the forest spirits of Finnish mythology, the piece features darting, flashing phrases of melody set against a backdrop of massive, static harmonies. I'll have to be spellbound if I ever hear this piece without thinking of gigantic, timeless trees holding up a canopy of branches and leaves, in whose shadow move strange, capricious things.

I recently gave The Unanswered Question another read-through in honor of the 140th birthday of its composer, American insurance tycoon and experimental composer Charles Ives. In this piece the strings set up a vast sense of space and, even more significantly, of time, with a very slow moving repeated pattern of tonal harmonies. Seven times spaced throughout the work, a solo trumpet repeats the same brief question-mark-shaped phrase of very atonal melody: B-flat dropping to C-sharp, rising to E-natural, leaping up to E-flat, and falling back to B-natural. The question this phrase poses is answered by a series of woodwind statements that do not seem to satisfy the questioner. The woodwind responses grow increasingly frustrated, then adopt a mocking tone before going silent and letting the question fill the space of a solemn, untroubled eternity.

The art form known as the Tone Poem, or sometimes as a Symphonic Poem, is the thing to look into if you are interested in the possibilities of music you can see. I recommend searching for pieces by Franz Liszt, Antonín Dvořák, Peter Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, and Claude Debussy, some of whose tone poems were really inspired by paintings. Mathis der Maler by Paul Hindemith is practically a symphony based on this principle. Other composers you may or may not have heard of, who likewise excelled at such music, are discussed in the Wiki on this type of music, which I choose not to plagiarize here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Quotes from the Commonplace Book

I'm not sure I haven't posted some of this before, but I was going through the notebook I keep in my car to jot down ideas, and I decided it was time to share some of the quotes I have scribbled in there. These come from audio books that I was listening to as I drove.

From one of the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian: "'I can get you a chaplain,' said the commandant, turning the knife in the wound."

From The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: "If one's lot is cast among fools, it is necessary to study folly."

From Bleak House by Charles Dickens: "I soon discovered my mistake and found him to be train-bearer and organ-blower to a whole procession of people."

From a single paragraph in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, the words "dumbledore" and "hagrid."

From The Return of the Native by Hardy: "She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries."

From the same book: "To be yearning for the difficult, to be weary of that offered; to care for the remote, to dislike the near... This is the true mark of the man of sentiment."

From Daniel Deronda by George Eliot: "A difference of taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections."

I have a note attributing the following to the same book: "Love has a way of saying, 'Never mind.'" However, I cannot now find this quote in the text of the book. Instead, I find this interesting quote from the same author's Adam Bede: "Love has a way of cheating itself consciously, like a child who plays at solitary hide-and-seek; it is pleased with assurances that it all the while disbelieves."

From Daniel Deronda, again: "Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it: it proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker."

From The Well-Beloved by Hardy: "...this was what he had become now, in the mockery of new Days."

From Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: "...good penetrating x-rayish phrases..."

From the same, the definition of a philosopher as deduced from the writings of Shakespeare: "A man who dreams of fewer things than there are in heaven and earth."

Another definition of philosophy cited in the same book: "Finding bad reasons for things that people believe for other bad reasons."

Again from the same: "You can't have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices."

And finally, from the same book: "...the right to be unhappy." (All right, J. K. Rowling fans! Who remembers where a bit of Brave New World sneaks into Harry Potter?)

Another Editorial for the Crypt

Here's today's aborted editorial for Halloween Week. I like it too much to simply delete it, but not enough to submit it for publication in the newspaper.
There’s a reason we all understand the phrase “deliciously creepy.” This Friday, Oct. 31, the kid in each of us celebrates it.

The first time you plunge face first into a tubful of water and bobbing apples, it can be a bit scary. But when you feel your teeth biting into a crisp apple, the payoff is instantaneous.

A lot of the ghoulish decorations are more silly than spooky. They enable you to make fun of things that really make your flesh crawl, so perhaps you can face them without showing fear.

Halloween dares, like ringing the doorbell of the scariest house in the neighborhood, can give a nice goosebumpy thrill. No one can blame you if you’re scared, but passing the test of courage can make you feel like a hero.

Now and then a Halloween prank really scares you. I don’t just mean a momentary startle, like when a hairy claw reaches from behind and grabs a shriek out of you. I mean the lingering horror of a scene that keeps replaying in your mind for hours or years afterward.

I still think about a big Victorian style house in the neighborhood where I grew up. One Halloween when I was trick-or-treating, I clambered up the steps of that house and rang the front doorbell.

Through the oval window in the door, I could see straight through the house, tidy but old-fashioned in its decoration. Sitting in the parlor, facing away from the door, was an older woman who did not stir when the bell was rung. Somehow that scene stuck in my brain with a shiver of delicious creepiness.

Often the delicious part, if you’re a child, is what tumbles out of your swag bag when you get home from your trick or treating rounds.

For parents, though, this may be the scariest part of Halloween. Besides being fattening, tooth-rotting, and unhealthy in so many ways, the treats might have been tampered with. Anything that isn’t factory-sealed inside a fully intact wrapper will go straight in the bin. You never know, these days.

This is why many parents see the wisdom of taking their kids to a safe Halloween party with people they know and trust. or escorting them on planned sugar safaris to places like the park or the nursing home.

Like sugar, spookiness can feel good, but only in moderate doses. Overdoing it can turn a night to remember into something you would rather forget.

As an adult I have watched movies that scared me when I was a child, and I wondered what the big deal was. I have also seen some films so gruesome that I wish I hadn’t seen them.

The approach to Halloween I recommend to kids of all ages is to allow yourself to be scared only enough to have fun - then just a bit more. Then let the sugar buzz make it all better.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Halloween Editorial that Wasn't

I decided, without even running it past my publisher, to withdraw the following piece that I wrote for my editorial in the Oct. 29 issue of The Morgan County Press. I did show it to my Dad, a fellow newspaperman, who agreed it would work better on my blog.
I moved around a lot as a child. I remember spooky Halloweens in several different states.

I remember being freaked out by a Halloween episode of “Little House on the Prairie” when I was an Indiana tyke knee-high to Melissa Gilbert.

I remember trick-or-treating as a middle schooler in Nebraska, where the scariest house in the neighborhood had the lights on and the drapes open. Anyone who rang could look through a big oval window in the front door and see an old lady sitting in the parlor with her back to the door, not responding to the bell.

I remember another Halloween in that same Nebraska town when nobody let their kids out of sight due to rumors of a satanic sacrifice planned that night. A little girl was snatched off the street not long after that - scary times, Halloween or not.

I remember the monster blizzard over Halloween when I was a college freshman in Minnesota. It was scary to think people could get lost and die within steps of their door.

This Halloween in the heart of Missouri, other things scare me.

It scares me to drive some roads around here at night. The hills, the curves, and the shadow of the trees sometimes make it hard to see what might be only a few car lengths ahead.

There’s a high-tension line between driving fast enough to get through it sooner and taking extra care to make it home in one piece. Sometimes that tension keeps humming at me for sleepless hours afterward.

It scares me when I see impatient drivers gunning past lines of other vehicles on a two-lane road when someone is closing in from the other direction.

That’s especially scary during my morning commute, when kids are waiting for the school bus all along the roadside.

It scares me to think of the troubles in St. Louis, where I lived until just before things started to go wrong.

What’s really chilling about it is that I can probably say nothing, however well meant, without the risk of adding to the evil. It’s a disturbing time, and the disturbances are disturbingly close.

I’m scared for friends and loved ones who are ill in health, uneasy in mind, or facing legal and financial troubles.

Two families I know have been evicted from their homes because they couldn’t afford the rent. A dear friend’s father faces criminal charges that could ruin his whole family. Someone I love has been feeling down, perhaps far enough down to impact their physical health. And people living on my beat have suffered hurt or loss when some of the things I fear happened to them.

While I pray for them, I am reminded I’ve been at a scarier place in my own life, when my fortunes were so precarious that I too could have lost my health or my home.

But I am also thankful for the kindness and concern of good people who helped me get to this better place. I hope I will rise to the occasion when the chance appears to pay it forward.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tree of Water

The Tree of Water
by Elizabeth Haydon
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the fourth book of The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme, the young Nain explorer continues his journeys to find out all the magic in the world and report it to a good young king. He has already explored the thieves' quarter of the city of Kingston, stopped a war between the dwarflike Nain and the elflike Lirin, and survived an encounter with Scarnag the dragon who represents earth-magic. He just missed the opportunity to visit one of the five world trees because his merrow (mermaid) friend Amariel needed to get back to the sea before she lost her fins forever. Now his chance has finally come to visit Amariel's world under the sea.

Ven has been told that a traveler sometimes doesn't know the reason for his journey until he reaches the end. There are certainly any number of possible reasons for this one. First, he still needs to steer clear of the Thief Queen, who has a grudge against him. Also, he has promised Amariel that he will travel with her below the waves. And then there's the reason a mysterious seer gives him, another dragon scale to be returned to its rightful owner at the bottom of the ocean. But above all, his curiosity and his job as the king's reporter pull him onward in search of the Tree of Water fabled to live somewhere out at sea.

Ven and his human friend Char are lucky enough to find a way to breathe underwater without having to let a scary old fisherman carve gills in their necks. The magical stones they carry provide not only air but also light in the dim depths. But solving the oxygen problem is only the first obstacle they must pass. After that comes the teeming ocean full of things that eat other things without regret or apology. Sharks, jellyfish, and giant devouring creatures of the sunlit realm are only the first and least of the dangers they face. After that come sea elves armed for war against the people on land, and a senselessly deadly waterspout, and a merciless sea dragon who breathes caustic acid instead of fire. Finally all Ven's reasons for visitng the sea combine with a spooky prophecy and a race to save Amariel's life to lure him and his friends into the deepest, darkest, deadliest place of all.

The way Ven and his companions travel to the deepest of deeps is truly ingenious. It is also full of gloomy dread and suspense. Along the way, they witness many marvelous and awful things, wonders of the underwater world that mankind has only begun to explore. The magic is impressive, but equally impressive is the window this book opens on a vast part of the natural world. And just when it seemed Ven's journals might be at an end, the storyline takes off in a new direction with even bigger possibilities than before.

This book arrives on October 28, 2014, carrying the promise of still more sequels. I am thankful to the staff at Starscape Books for giving me an early peek at it. I am glad to be able to say, in all sincerity, that I thought this book was even more entertaining than the three before it. Their titles, by the way, are The Floating Island, The Thief Queen's Daughter, and The Dragon's Lair. The series takes place in the same fantasy world as the author's other major series of novels, Symphony of Ages, of which an eighth book is expected in 2015.

Brave New World

Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
Recommended Ages: 14+

I was never very interested in reading this book until lately, when political pundits began setting it up as an opposite to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. After reading it, I don't really see them as opposites so much as complimentary, dystopian views of the direction our world may be headed.

Orwell's vision of a world enslaved, body and soul, by a totalitarian communist state, dates from 1949. Huxley's best known work came even earlier, in 1932. Where Orwell's nightmare future state uses coded language and, on occasion, torture to condition the thoughts of its citizens, Huxley's uses a cocktail of drugs, mass entertainment, and propaganda recordings repeated over and over while people sleep. Hypnopedia, they call it: sleep-teaching. In Orwell's imagination, religion has been replaced with devotion to Big Brother. In Huxley's fantasy, it's the word of our Ford, whose symbol (based on a model of automobile) is the T, and whose vision of mass production and mass consumption has become the guiding principle of civilization.

In Orwell's world, a citizen's absolute obedience to the state is ensured by allowing him to form only sanctioned relationships, while family ties and other personal intimacies are neutralized by the fear of being betrayed for thought crime and whatnot. In Huxley's world, the family has been totally abolished. Children are decanted from bottles, not born. Their socioeconomic destiny is fore-ordained by genetic tests, hormone treatments and chemical intervention before they take their first breath. Hypnopedia, mass entertainment, and unrestricted sex and drugs combine to keep them happy with their lot in life and leave them no time for solitary reflection. Concepts like "mother" and "father" have become obscenities, throwbacks to an all but forgotten world.

Orwell's Winston Smith fornicates as an act of political defiance, and pays for it by being brainwashed back into conformity. Huxley's John the Savage resists the sex play of the infantile, happiness-centered society he finds himself in, and eventually destroys himself rather than submit. A person who sticks out of the norm, in Orwell's world, might be disappeared and made an unperson, the very memory of him erased by a communal fear of sharing his fate. Such a person in Huxley's world is only sent to an island where he can enjoy the company of other exceptional people without disturbing the stability of society.

It is impossible to read both of these books today without filtering them through the lens of each other. Both are regularly featured in lists of "100 Books Everyone Should Read" and the like. Both began to be regarded as prophetic within a very few years. Both of them resonate in certain ways with the trend of today's civilization. I wouldn't choose either one over the other, or set them up as alternatives. Whether the revolution is driven by socialist ideology or by unchecked consumerism and the dehumanizing march of scientific progress is really only a detail. When you filter out the speculative details that make both books fun to read, you are left with similar grave messages about the possibility, perhaps the inevitability, of a future in which a utopian philosophy gains power and crushes individuality, true freedom, and the greatest achievements of human culture in the name of state security or social stability.

I listened to an unabridged audio-CD edition of this book read by the distinguished actor Michael York. He did a fabulous job reading it. It's a brief book, sometimes a little talky and philosophical, often amusing and titillating, frequently horrifying, completely weird, and for at least one experimental passage where the point of view shifts every sentence or two, ludicrously difficult to sell as a vocal performance. So York deserves full credit for keeping me engaged throughout the book. As for Huxley, he wrote a sequel called Brave New World Revisited in 1958; ten other novels including Crome Yellow and Point Counter Point; loads of essays, poems, and criticism; a play, a few short stories, and a children's picture book called The Crows of Pearblossom. For a full list, click here.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair
by William Makepeace Thackeray
Recommended Ages: 13+

This satirical novel is widely considered the peak of Thackeray's career. Probably in its favor is the fact that it is hard to pigeon-hole. Said to be the second greatest novel of the Napoleonic wars after War and Peace, it has no scenes of battle, instead depicting Waterloo from the viewpoint of the frightened civilians hunkering in nearby Brussels. In its most memorable character, the manipulative social climber Becky Sharp, Thackeray set out to portray an irredeemably wicked person in brusque retort to popular entertainments that he saw as glorifying villainy; somehow, though, she grew to be a charming rogue at the center of a droll picaresque. The more sympathetic characters of Amelia Sedley and William Dobbin seem fated at first to play the role of virtuous lovers; but by the time they finally come together, the realization that they are both fools has taken the love out of their love story and the happiness out of their happily ever after. Meanwhile, the satire cuts at every layer of society without mercy, its tone of smirking wit barely concealing the author's disgust with human nature and British manners. Concluding with the ambiguous possibility that Becky gets away with murder, it leaves a dark, bitter aftertaste.

Thackeray teases us with a feint away from the usual pattern of ending the romance with the lovers finding each other and getting married. Amelia gets her George Osborne, and Rebecca gets her Rawdon Crawley, surprisingly early in the book. They have plenty of time with their husbands to grow unhappy with their triumph, and lose their husbands one way or another, and move on again. And when the true hero couple finally does tie the knot, right on schedule at the end of the book, they do it in a way that once again lets the air out of that convention. Meanwhile Becky schemes to get into high society, schemes for the favors of rich men, schemes to promote her husband's interests in the cutthroat game of inheriting money, and above all schemes to live in style on nothing a year, always showing the perfect antiheroine's love of self above all. As Thackeray depicts her repeated rise and fall with a frankness only lightly censored by consideration for the reader's delicate sensibilities, the rising and falling fates of good, sweet Miss Sedley, later Mrs. Osborne, become harder and harder to care about. The only really interesting thing about Amelia's story is the dawning realization, which finally comes to Dobbin, that she isn't worthy of the torch he has carried for her all his life. And even then it is Becky who both destroys their chances of happiness and who finally, by a unique act of self-denial, brings them back together for better or worse.

What else Becky destroys, and how thoroughly she destroys it, and how far she goes in destroying herself along the way, is what makes this an immortal book. If it weren't for the humor and self-deprecating touches, if it weren't for Thackeray's way of reminding us that it's only a novel after all, the feelings you would take away from this book would be a mixture of horror, sadness, and righteous anger. Its running conceit about society being a vanity fair crosses over into the realm of prophecy, as in "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" - and that goes for British imperialism, and the military life, and capitalism, and the institution of marriage, and the fashions and taste of the rich, and family ties that have money interests tangled in them, and so much else.

I listened to an unabridged audio edition of this book narrated by Wanda McCaddon. I was thoroughly entertained from one end to the other, though I had to finish reading the book on Kindle because the last CD in the set was a multimedia disk, which meant my car's audio-only CD player couldn't play it. I wish audio book publishers would get over the temptation to combine part of the audio with a folder of data files. It takes some of the zest out of my project of becoming well-read while I commute.

Thackeray was a good satirist, to judge by this book. He made the evils of society not merely repulsive, but ridiculous. He made generous use of his gift for inventing silly names for silly people, such as the social parasite Tapeworm, the vulgar nobleman Sir Pitt Crawley, the snobbish Lady Bareacres, the mild Lady Jane Sheepshanks, and the vile Marquess of Steyne (pronounced like "stain"). No one is spared: neither unfaithful husbands nor their faithful wives; neither the genteel British practice of ostracizing people of lower social or moral standing, nor continental European society's willingness to take adventurers under its wing; neither the mother who makes an idol of her son, nor the one who hates and neglects hers; neither the unwise businessman who goes bankrupt nor the rich miser who takes his fortune to the grave; neither the gold-digging relatives nor the rich relation whose fickle favor makes and breaks their fortunes; neither the calculating vixen who claws herself nearly to the top of the social heap nor the chumps who allow her to bring them down with her into ruin again.

You may well ask what it is that Thackeray really wanted to attack. The answer might be: everything and everybody. The nobility, the rich, the servant class, the deserving and undeserving poor. The only constant in life, as he depicts it, is the ridiculous. People don't change much, either. They aren't ennobled by suffering. They take all their character traits with them, good and bad, wherever life leads them; hardship and reward only make their key characteristics stand out, perhaps in grotesque relief. And the story never really has an ending because the problems in life have no neat solution. At some given point the puppeteer must simply declare the puppet play to be at an end, as Thackeray does in a final sentence that wakes the reader like a dash of cold water in the face. And before that final sentence is a penultimate statement of the moral of it all: "Which of us is happy in the world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?"

Thackeray is best remembered today for his most bitingly satirical, early novels, of which Vanity Fair was his greatest success. Some of his other notable titles include The Luck of Barry Lyndon, The History of Pendennis, and The Book of Snobs.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Is THAT How You Say" 6

I'm still listening to the same audio-book as when I last commented on this thread, and already I have more examples of words whose pronunciation I am forced, by the example of literary British actors, to reconsider.

Today I heard Wanda McCaddon pronounce maraschino with an "sh" sound, "ma-ra-SHEE-no," the way I always thought it was supposed to be spoken until I saw Some Like It Hot, with Jack Lemmon giving it an extra consonant sound: "ma-ra-SKEE-no." I figure the Italian language is probably on Lemmon's side.

Later I heard McCaddon say the word contumely, which I believe was the first time I had ever heard it spoken aloud. I learned the word by reading lots of Dickens, and I always imagined it had four syllables, owing to the fact that the "e" gets a lot of emphasis in the adjective form "contumelious," though in my mind's ear "contumely" is stressed on the second syllable. McCaddon, however, gave it a three-syllable rendition, with a silent "e" and accent on the first syllable. Who knew?

I am fascinated by the British stage dialect's approach to the letters "ng." I have only noticed lately that it pronounces words like congregate and distinguish with no hard "g," but only a simple nasal "ng." It's so subtle you might not notice it, but it's really quite different from the American pronunciation.

Then there's cantonment, another word that until lately I only knew by sight and not by sound. My guess as to its pronunciation was near the mark, but where I put a schwa in the second syllable, McCaddon places a very decided "o," almost as in "can-tone-ment," though perhaps nearer to "can't-on-ment."

And finally, there's the type of smoking apparatus that I first encountered in Alice in Wonderland, where we find a caterpillar using it. I would have expected hookah to rhyme with "palooka." But in McCaddon's British enunciation, it comes across almost as a homophone of "hooker," in an accent that drops final Rs.

The Silkworm

The Silkworm
by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J. K. Rowling)
Recommended Ages: 14+

Robert Galbraith's first novel enjoyed great financial and critical success even before he turned out to be J. K. Rowling, she of the Harry Potter series. The excitement of being a first-time author all over again seems to have spurred her imagination, bringing us this second Cormoran Strike mystery. I think it is as scintillating as the first installment, and if you'll forgive the slight spoiler, I look forward to following what promises to be an ongoing series.

In case you missed The Cuckoo's Calling, Cormoran Strike is a thirty-something private detective who lost a leg in Afghanistan while serving in the Special Investigation Branch of the British army. He could be famous for being the natural son of a rock star, the ex-fiance of a supermodel, and the sleuth who solved the Lula Landry murder. But he prefers to keep a low profile so he can follow cheating husbands without being spotted. He's good at this kind of work, but it clearly doesn't bring him total fulfillment. That becomes obvious when he chooses the case of a missing author, whose wife may not be able to pay his fee, rather than a rich client's quest for dirty laundry.

Owen Quine is an experimental novelist whose literary career has not lived up to the promise of his first novel. According to his wife Leonora, Quine has gone into hiding before and getting the police involved only made him angry. He has been out of touch for two weeks now, and Leonora wants him to come home. At first Strike thinks this will simply be a case of rounding up a delinquent husband and father who is sulking after his publisher refused to accept his latest novel. It also seems Quine may be looking for a way to self-publish his book full of thinly disguised, but extremely nasty, portraits of his rivals and associates. Just when Strike seems to have found the author's hideout, he finds instead the scene of a grisly murder.

The first Cormoran Strike novel used the formalities of a detective story as a lens to view the world of fame, glamor, and media frenzy. The second brings its focus to bear on the publishing and literary scene. Book editors, agents, publishers, and authors fill the frame with their disturbing fetishes, their long buried skeletons, their grudges and jealousies, their emotionally and mentally damaged loved ones. Even friends and lovers of the murdered writer come in for a share of the abuse in a novel-within-a-novel whose title, a reference to a creature that must be boiled alive to make silk, is the least troubling thing about it. And though the police think they have their killer, Strike's sense of literary proportion tells him something doesn't add up.

Aiding Strike in his investigation is a lovely young lady named Robin, who was only a temporary secretary when we first met her. By the end of this investigation, she has come a fair way toward becoming a case-solving partner to Strike, in spite of trouble at home with her tetchy fiance Matthew. Cormoran, too, has relationship problems to work on, including a turbulent romance that continues to die a long, lingering death. He is a character rich in paradox: a rich man's son who lives paycheck to paycheck, a plain looking solitary bloke who is irresistible to women, a working-class type who can quote Latin poetry by memory, a half cripple whose keen mind and dogged persistence ensure that he always gets his man (or woman). He couldn't be more different from a certain boy wizard whose fantasy-world adventures, while most enjoyable, require readers to accept a lot of improbable and whimsical ideas. He is a believable man in a recognizable world, and his race to solve the case before the coppers close it is an intense, intelligent piece of mystery-thriller writing.

J. K. Rowling owes herself, and her readers, more books like this. I think it's what she was made to do.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Is THAT How You Say" 5

It's been a while since the last time I added words to my inventory of English words I've known for years and only lately learned how to pronounce.

Take inventory, for example. I've written before about the sainted theology professor who taught me to reconsider how I have always pronounced the words "controversy" and "adversary." I think it may also have been he who put the emphasis on the second syllable of this word: "in-VEN-taree."

Only within the last week or two, I have heard two different British actors pronounce vitamin with a short "i" in the first syllable, like "VIT-a-min," instead of the long-i "VIE-ta-min" I have always known. It must be a U.K. thing.

The last little while, I've been listening to an audio-book of Thackeray's Vanity Fair by an actress of the British persuasion. It's early days, yet she has already given me a half dozen examples for this thread:

Sal volatile, otherwise known as smelling salts, is a compound once considered as indispensible to a well ordered household as pocket handkerchiefs and whalebone stays. Perhaps because of said stays, ladies used to faint a lot and needed to be brought around by the pungent-smelling vapor that sublimates off these crystals. Now that women's fashion exposes them to a much greater supply of oxygen, this sort of thing is not called for quite as frequently. In fact, I've never seen anyone faint in real life. So why should I know how this stuff is pronounced? I always guessed it was like the name of an Italian-American gangster, with the second name rather descriptive of his temper. Now I hear a cultured British voice pronouncing it like "Salvo Lattily." As in, "She bore the salvo lattily," i.e. with a frothy good humor, like steamed milk. Goodness! I feel faint!

Then there's the word placable, notable not so much for its surprising pronunciation as for the fact that it's a word at all. Thackeray uses it. I never knew it existed before, in spite of its implacable opposite.

I am a proficient player of the pianoforte, but apparently I have never pronounced my own instrument correctly. The "e" at the end is silent, according to this latest audio-book reader. I suppose if your pronunciation is influenced by French, rather than Italian (whence I thought the word came), that makes sense. The word "forte," as in, "Proper English pronunciation is not my forte," is supposed to end with a silent "e." But is the musical term for "loud" supposed to end likewise? I've heard the word pronounced by a lot of musicians from all over the world, and none of them seem to think so.

The next word I noted down was consummate, which I have always heard stressed on the first syllable. When used as a verb, it rhymes with "fate." The final vowel becomes a schwa in the adjective form. That's what I thought, anyway. But I was the consummate fool, evidently. My current informant pronounces the adjective with a stress on the second syllable: "con-SUM-mat." It sounds odd, but it does bring out the main idea of the word, doesn't it?

Finally for now, there's the equestrian word curveted, a word I actually had to look up. Google defines "curvet," when spoken of a horse, as "to leap gracefully or energetically." Being no kind of horse person whatever, I have neither understood nor pronounced this word correctly until now. I always thought it meant something to do with how the warm-blooded vehicle pranced and turned about, and would have pronounced it with an accent on the second syllable: "cur-VET-ted." But no, it means to jump and it's stressed on the first syllable: "CURV-et-ed." Wow. I now feel like a complete ass.

Why Repeat Signs?

I've been to a lot of concerts where fine-art music was performed. I have noticed, and heard critics and lecturers remark, that in many performances today, the repeat signs in orchestral scores are customarily disregarded. Here are some reasons I think this is a bad idea, and why the repeat signs should be restored and cherished.

First, suppose you went to an art gallery to look at a great painting. Would you take just one quick look it and move on to the next exhibit? Some people might. But they aren't the ones most likely to get a lot out of the picture. Even if you have seen it before, you would probably linger in front of it, look at it from different angles, move toward it and away again to see it at different distances. You would give it some time to draw your eye from one detail to another. You would compare your impression of it to other times you saw it, perhaps under a different color-temperature of light or set off against the surroundings of a different room. If you paid close attention, you would realize you were seeing a picture you had never seen before. That's not just because the painting has perhaps deteriorated or been restored, but also because you can never see the same picture twice. And that, very simply, is because you're never the same person as the you who came to see the picture before. Experience has changed you. Increased maturity and, let's face it, senility have altered your organs of perception. The context of your life, which both gives meaning to and takes meaning from your experience of the art work, has changed to some extent. You and the picture need some time together, because you will never meet again under the same conditions.

When you're listening to music, this truth is even more true because music is an art form that alters time itself. In a sense, what you are contemplating as you hear a fine piece of music is the time you are spending listening to it. That moment can never be perfectly recalled, even by a high-definition recording. In fact, your fallible memory of your impression of a live performance is probably truer than a reproduction of that performance in fully digital surround sound. A very similar moment can be created, but something definite (though hard to express in words) is lost by virtue of that very similarity. Having the ability to play back a recording may seem to obviate the need to observe repeat signs because you can always go back and hear the piece again, and even skip back to an earlier passage in the piece during your playback. But this is too much like collecting glossy prints of a great painting and pouring over magnified sections of the painting with a jeweler's loupe. It isn't so much like looking at the whole picture, considering the whole and the parts, and taking time to really look at it.

Hearing the piece with the repeat signs observed gives you a better appreciation for the structure and proportions intended by the creator. It is tempting to borrow metaphors from painting, sculpture, and architecture at this point. When the piece reaches a significant middle point and goes back to the beginning, it claims that much more time for the material already presented. It adds that much more length to the overall piece. It professes the composer's faith that his musical argument merits being heard again, being prolonged, filling a larger canvas. And it lends a weight or dimension to that section of the piece that will balance in a characteristic way against the remainder of the whole. In more specifically musical terms, observing the repeat sign draws attention to the structural identity of that first part (or a later section, if that is repeated), gives the listener a second chance to appreciate the themes as originally presented (for they may never be heard that way again), and dabbles in the waters of double entendre.

I raise this last point because the tonal relationship between the end of the first section and the beginning of the piece is not the same as its relationship to the next passage after the repeat sign. The cadence at the end of the thematic exposition (to use sonata form as an example) is thus shown in two different lights, first heading back to the home key and then, at the end of the second time through, leading off into fresh territory. Some of the great composers' most masterful strokes are at this crucial point in the musical form. They may go by unnoticed. But I, for one, have always felt my attention drawn to them.

Sometimes skipping the repeat signs means the concert hall can get more bang for its buck. It can fit more pieces of music into an evening's program, or get through larger works faster so all the unionized labor can close the shop and go home on time. It certainly doesn't make the pieces any harder to sit through, from the point of view of an audience conditioned to have a shorter attention span than that of earlier generations. But the trade-off is that they don't get to spend the time with the musical picture that they really need to take it in; they don't get to experience the mathematical harmony of its originally intended proportions; they don't get to appreciate fully the distinctness of the piece's musical structure and the way key elements in that structure have been designed to serve more than one purpose.

These considerations should carry more rather than less weight at a time of life when one has heard some pieces played many times by many different performers, because each performance is like the light of a different season or time of day shining into a differently dimensioned and decorated room. Just as the painting would look different, so the symphony would sound different in a different hall, played by a different orchestra, conducted by a different maestro, and perhaps played out of a different edition of the score. An original-performance-practice recording is going to sound quite different from a modern-instruments orchestra performance. An amateur, town-gown philharmonic society's reading of the piece, after rehearsing it one night a week for a whole quarter, is going to sound different from a world-class, full-time, professional outfit. A veteran conductor is going to lead a performance a world away from the brash young turk still struggling for his big break. A conductor who programs a lot of contemporary music may play Handel from a Stravinskian perspective, while a conductor who specializes in reviving Handel operas may play Stravinsky with a surprisingly light touch. And you'll hear them differently depending on whether you've just come away from a linen-tablecloth restaurant where you had too much to eat and drink, or whether you've come straight from work without even changing clothes; whether you're coming off a dry spell and haven't heard a concert in months, or whether you've heard every performance in the last month. In any of these scenarios, the chances are good that you will hear something you didn't expect, and may not quite believe really happened the first time. Your familiarity with the piece is part of the background against which you are aurally viewing it tonight. You may want a second glimpse just to be sure of what you saw.

But finally, I think the practice of skipping repeat signs shows a want of love and respect for the masters and their masterpieces, which true lovers of the art form ought to enjoy for its own sake and without any hurry for it to be over. The silence comes too soon. And until it comes, life is too full of unbeautiful noise and cheap, inferior music. The more of our time that we can adorn with something true and human and good, the better the world will be.